By: Dr. Eric M. Meyers
Archaeologist and Duke University professor
The question of whether Jesus celebrated Passover in Sepphoris is related to the larger question of why Sepphoris is not mentioned in the New Testament. As many of our readers must know, Sepphoris is only 5 kilometers from nearby Nazareth. When Sepphoris became the capital of Galilee and Perea in the lifetime of Jesus Herod set out to make Sepphoris the “ornament of all Galilee” (Josephus. Antiquities 18.27). Presumably destroyed in 4 BCE in the time of the brutal Roman governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, it is not too far-fetched to assume that the first major (re)building of Sepphoris occurred shortly after, during the reign of Herod Antipas.
Having worked at Sepphoris for decades and, being in the middle of final publication, I can say that the early Roman period has remained a bit elusive in the ground for a number of reasons. First, the subsequent history of the city and site is so distinguished that we may think of the entire Roman period as one of renewal and renovation. We have basements with ritual baths, sections of walls, even the outline of a large domestic or possibly administrative building. But with the expansion on the city after 70 CE, when many new Judeans settled at Sepphoris, much of the old was lost except foundations and possibly a number of buildings in the Lower City. But that is the nature of archaeology, and in the classical period, with elaborate urban planning was common, the earlier remains often did not survive. That is one of the major reasons we do not have many “early” synagogues preserved; their earlier phases were obscured by later renovations and rebuilds.
With this in mind, when Nazareth Village open air museum was being planned in the late 1990’s, the late Ehud Netzer and I along with several others were asked to consult on what a first-century synagogue would have looked like. I offer Ehud’s unpublished drawing on which the building that now stands there was based. Readers will note the orientation to the south, six internal columns, and the benches all around. While this is only a theoretical reconstruction, the Nazareth Village team in fact built the structure along these lines and it is the end-stop on the Nazareth Village tour for Christian pilgrims.
All this is to say is that the belief that Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Lower Galilee near Sepphoris is very much a part of contemporary tourism, and of course, scholarship. Recent excavations on the property of Nazareth Village revealed a farm from the first century that some believe is associated with Jesus’s family. Still more recently a first-century Jewish house near the Church of the Annunciation has been identified and excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority. All of this activity and material has lent a sense of renewed interest in Nazareth that parallels the unprecedented ancient flurry of activity and interest in Sepphoris.
Remains from the old excavations below the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth have long claimed to be related to the first-century community in which Jesus’s family lived. Anna, mother of Mary, however, is venerated in the medieval Crusader Church of St. Anne located on the westernmost area of Sepphoris.
I mention all this about Nazareth for several reasons. Nazareth was certainly a small, relatively poor village and it must have signaled a dramatic change to have so great a city as Sepphoris emerge before its very own eyes only a short distance away. The contrast between village and urban capital could not have been more evident, though in everyday terms there was great continuity between village and town. The building campaign to rebuild the city was led by a son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and undoubtedly had a significant economic and demographic effect on the local economy of workers and artisans.
But, how did the family of Jesus relate to these developments? Was it too urban, or too Hellenized? Or was it the presence of the royal family that had run amuck with the imprisonment of John the Baptist (Josephus Antiquities 18.5.2) that would have turned
Jesus off to Sepphoris? There hardly is any doubt but that the vast majority of the city of Sepphoris at this time was Jewish, and there is ample documentation in the form of stone vessels, ritual baths, and the absence of pig bones in the faunal record. But we also know that Jesus’s ministry was directed to the poor and disenfranchised and it may well have been that what was happening at Sepphoris and subsequently at Tiberias was a huge turnoff. Perhaps this is why Jesus made Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee the center and home base of his ministry and not Tiberias or Sepphoris.
One final thought: In Mark 6:1-6 (par. Matthew 13:54-58; Luke 4:16-30) Jesus is rejected in the synagogue after preaching there. Is it possible that Jesus’s discomfort with the development of Sepphoris by Herod Antipas was what turned the elders against him? The economic boom had already certainly hit Nazareth and in the eyes of the elders was having a positive impact. And we should remember too that Sepphoris’s pro-Roman stance became a reality when the city chose not to participate in the Great Revolt (Josephus War 30-34). Nero even allowed the city to mint coins and refer to itself as Irenopolis, City of Peace (lit. Irenopolis-Neronias-Sepphoris). That special relation with Rome continued to the third century CE and the time of Caracalla and Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, who lived there when a medallion was struck to commemorate the special relationship between the city and the Roman Senate.
This longstanding tradition of Sepphoris being associated with Rome with its roots in the time of Jesus, and his inherit distrust and distaste for the royal family, could well have led the elders of Nazareth to reject him and sent Jesus looking for a new setting from which to spread his simple message of love, ethics, and the kingdom of heaven.
Passover in Sepphoris was not a place where Jesus would have been comfortable.
Eric Meyers is the Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University.
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